It's hard to believe that Kobe Bryant has been in the league for 15 seasons. He was once a high flying 17-year-old rookie with a mega-watt smile and now he's a 32-year-old veteran who will retire as one of the 10-15 best players in league history.
Assuming we may not have much of a next season to watch, there's no shame in reflecting on the greatest moments of Bryant's career. It's even more fitting we do as the Basketball Hall of Fame inducts a new class this weekend because soon, Bryant will be there one day.
It was almost impossible to narrow this list down and so many great memories were left on the cutting room floor. Lakers fans will no doubt add to this list with their own ideas of Bryant's greatness.
The list is in chronological order so after some honorable mentions, we'll start with the moment that began it all.
- 4 All-Star Game MVPs (Greatest might be his 2011 win at home: 37 pts, 14 rebs and three steals)
- 4 straight games of 50 or more points (Only Wilt Chamberlain has more)
- 6 buzzer-beaters in 2009-10
- Game 4 of the 2006 First Round (Game-tying shot in regulation, game winner in OT)
- A slew of legendary dunks too.
We didn’t know it at the time but we were watching one of the greatest rookie classes on display and it was an amazing game with Allen Iverson winning the MVP. Just check the box score and be in awe of the names who performed.
But that weekend was all about Bryant. He set the then Rookie Game record with 31 points and then put on a display in the Slam Dunk Competition later in the night. With former prom date/R&B singer Brandy cheering him on, he won the contest with a through-the-legs dunk.
While Bryant mired on the bench most of his rookie season, that weekend let everyone know a star was born as well set the stage for future All-Star glory.
1998 All-Star Game Starter – Despite being the Lakers’ sixth man, Bryant became the youngest All-Star starter in NBA history and shared the court with Shaquille O’Neal and future teammates Karl Malone and Gary Payton.
Bryant responded with a team-high 18 points and one incredible alley-oop from Kevin Garnett. He famously went toe-to-toe with Michael Jordan several times and it was another reminder that the future had arrived with him, Garnett, Tim Duncan and Jason Kidd in that game.
It wasn’t the last time Bryant would make his mark at Madison Square Garden.
This was Kobe’s first postseason moment. Up to that time, he was more famous for shooting those airballs as a rookie in the 1997 playoffs against Utah. But against Phoenix with All-Defensive selection Jason Kidd guarding him, Bryant hit a double-clutch jumper with 2.6 seconds left.
In a year where Bryant made his first All-Defense Team (memorably holding Allen Iverson scoreless in the second half in one game), this was his first moment on his way to being clutch. It put the Lakers up 2-0 against Phoenix and was one more announcement that he was an elite player on the best team in basketball.
One of the greatest fourth-quarter comebacks in team history was capped off by one of the greatest plays in LA Lakers history. Kobe shook Scottie Pippen and threw it up for Shaq, who threw it down one-handed over Rasheed Wallace.
Bob Costas’ call still sends chills when you hear it and seeing the Lakers’ bench erupt never gets old. But lost in the play and the 15-point comeback keyed by Brian Shaw is that Bryant had one of his best all-around games of the season. (25 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and four blocks).
I'll guarantee almost every Lakers fan can remember where they were when this play happened.
Bryant scored 22 points in the second half but what matters is what he did in overtime when Shaq fouled out.
All he did was go toe-to-toe with one of the greatest clutch performers in NBA history in Reggie Miller and outperform him. Bryant hit three crucial shots in the final two minutes, including the go-ahead putback layup with 5.9 seconds. When Miller’s three-point attempt fell short, the Lakers escaped with a 3-1 series lead.
This game came with Bryant still hobbled by a bad ankle that kept him out of Game 3 and most of Game 2. If you ask any Lakers fan, this was the game where Kobe announced at 21 that it was no longer just Shaq’s team but a shared partnership to greatness.
When the Lakers marched to the 2001 NBA Title with a 15-1 record in the postseason, Bryant played some of the best “second fiddle” basketball in recent NBA history. And I use that term loosely cause that postseason rivals what Dirk Nowitzki just did this recent postseason.
Here are his stats: 29.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists. That includes a 48-point, 16-rebound game against Sacramento. A 45-point, 10-rebound performance in Game 1 against San Antonio followed by a 36-9-8 game two games later. A near triple double in Game 4 of the NBA Finals (19 pts, 10 rebs and nine assts).
You could make the argument that Bryant was the true MVP of the 2001 playoffs but it was one of his finest stretches of basketball during one of the most under appreciated playoff runs in recent sports history.
Bryant earned his first All-NBA First Team selection and helped lead the Lakers to the a three-peat in one of the toughest playoff runs in team history. They survived a grueling Western Conference Finals against Sacramento where they had to win Game 6 at home to stay alive and win Game 7 on the road. Bryant helped send the game into overtime by setting up Shaq for a three-point play to tie the game in regulation.
The Finals itself was probably the easiest of the three titles. The New Jersey Nets were no match for a hungry Lakers squad and despite Jason Kidd's near MVP season, they were swept in four games.
If anything, this playoff season confirmed that the Bryant-O’Neal tandem was one of the greatest in league history. Bryant added to his legacy with a 36-point effort in Game 3 that helped the Lakers sweep the New Jersey Nets.
You don’t think of Bryant as a long-distance shooter, although it may surprise you how high he ranks on the all-time made three-pointers list (18th). But on this night, Kobe made more than anyone in NBA history.
Against the Seattle Supersonics, he made 12 three-pointers. It might be the most underrated/forgotten record that Bryant has—a record later tied by Donyell Marshall—but it’s impressive considering his game is more slasher/mid-range than long distance.
Bryant finished 12-for-18 from three-point land en route to 45 points.
Most players have one game where they catch fire. The elite players maybe have two to three games where they’re in a zone. Now try to imagine somebody catching fire for nearly a month and continuing to roast teams like it was a video game.
In nine games, Kobe scored as low as 40 points and as high as 52. It was the longest such streak since Michael Jordan did it in during the 1986-87 season. The signature moment came when he baptized a rookie Yao Ming with a dunk that was as vicious as any he’s thrown down.
It should be pointed out the Lakers went 7-2 during this run, including winning the last four, and they won when Bryant had his two biggest games (52 and 51 points). For the entire month, he averaged a Wilt Chamberlain-esque 40.6 points per game.
I remember this vividly from my freshman year of college. I’d turn on games not to see if the Lakers would win but if Kobe would put up another 40. It was as unbelievable a stretch as I’ve ever seen.
This game might be overshadowed by what Bryant did a month later but it’s still one of the craziest scoring binges I ever witnessed as a sports fan.
Read the box score. Critics might look at the zero assists but I’ll choose to look at the eight rebounds and three steals to support the insanity that Bryant did against the Western Conference champions.
What’s more mindboggling? Kobe scoring 62 points in under 33 minutes of game action or that he outscored an entire team in the same period? Or wondering how many he could’ve had if Phil Jackson let him play in the fourth quarter.
One month after his 62-point binge, Bryant showed what he could do when unleashed. This was the greatest scoring performance most of us had ever seen and there’s no shame being mentioned below Wilt Chamberlain in NBA history.
We know the story now. The Lakers were trailing by double digits at halftime when Bryant exploded for 55 points in the second half. Rarely does one man take over a game and single-handedly destroy a team but this game was exactly that.
Toronto could’ve asked Dennis Johnson, Michael Cooper, Sidney Moncrief or any of the greatest defenders in NBA history to guard Bryant and they would’ve been helpless. There was no stopping No. 8 that night and those who witnessed it in Staples Center or on TV will remember it the same way people remember Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point masterpiece.
After three seasons of running the Lakers and putting up some of the best offensive numbers in his career, Bryant morphed into a better leader and thanks to a late trade for Pau Gasol, led the Lakers back to the NBA Finals. His reward? The long-awaited MVP trophy.
All throughout his career, people asked if Bryant could lead a team instead of just will them with his game. This year, he proved that he was not only the best player in the league, he was one of its best leaders. It was also a full circle return to being accepted by fans who had abandoned him after 2004.
It placed him among Lakers legends—Shaq, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic—who had won the MVP and it also began the second phase of his career as a champion after they lost to the Boston Celtics in the 2008 Finals.
Later that summer, the Black Mamba took his game overseas that summer with Team USA and helped the Redeem Team win the gold medal. To nobody’s surprise, Bryant was the catalyst vs. Spain in the final game as his fourth quarter play helped the U.S. win the gold medal and reclaim their place as the best team in the world.
Bryant has had plenty of great games in Madison Square Garden but his 2009 game at the Mecca of hoops was by far his best.
It was the most points that any player had scored in the fabled arena and considering that Bryant was 13 years in the league, it’s one of the best late-career scoring binges in NBA history and probably the most shocking 60-point game in his career.
The 61 points was the most by a visitor, surpassing Michael Jordan's 55 point post-retirement game in 1995. It also passed Bernard King's famous 60-point Christmas day performance. One more reminder that the Black Mamba was one of the deadliest scorers the league has ever witnessed.
It took Bryant five years to get back to the NBA Finals. It’d only take five games to reach back to the mountain top he tried to reach for seven years.
The Lakers needed some great escapes to get back there. They survived a seven-game series with Houston in the conference semifinals. Trevor Ariza saved two wins in the conference finals with late steals and Derek Fisher won Game 4 of the Finals with his game-tying three in regulation and overtime dagger.
But in the end, Bryant had the final say. He closed out the Magic with 30-point, six rebound, five assist and four block performance in Game 5 and finally won his first NBA Finals MVP trophy.
Let’s review what this great series meant for the Lakers history.
Beating the Boston Celtics, something that only two Lakers teams had done before? Check. Winning a Game 7 at home after trailing by double digits? Check. Now look at what it meant for Kobe Bryant.
Erasing the memories of 2008? Check. Finding ways to win without scoring as much? Check (See his 15 rebounds). Showing his basketball IQ by passing to Ron Artest for the dagger three? Check. Earning his fifth ring to tie him with Magic Johnson and pass Shaquille O’Neal? Check.
Bryant said that this championship was the most satisfying of his career and in a career full of greatness, it’s only fitting this gets mentioned last. This season saw Bryant not only prove his clutch with six game winning shots in the final minute but finally win a title at Staples Center 10 years after his first NBA title win.